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By: Debbie Howard

Attitudes toward women in the workplace in Japan are changing slowly but surely. Companies are getting on board and offering support for employees with families as a way to encourage women to stay in the workforce. And even though women still have to make tough choices to make regarding their careers versus their family life, the evidence is growing to show that men are increasingly supportive of the changes that are taking place.

A recent survey titled “Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia,” sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion in Asia Network shows that Japan is making progress. Although it had lower percentages of women in senior level positions in comparison to China and Singapore (and was on par with India), the positives in Japan were seen to be “greater government and company focus on women and more opportunities for women than previously.”

With participation by Fortune 500 companies such as American Express, Cisco, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft, this Goldman Sachs, this important study gives a clear benchmark of leading multinational companies’ performance across the region, and it identifies not only the percentages of women at junior, middle and senior levels in the workplace, but what women leaders say has helped them and hindered them in their progress.

Another recent study conducted by NPO GEWEL (Global Enhancement of Women’s Executive Leadership) and titled “Survey on the Consciousness of Working People 2008” sought to illuminate how much progress is being made in Japan in the area of diversity and inclusion. The survey is compelling because it is very large-scale (10,357 participants), and includes both working males and females. Further, participants represent both foreign and Japanese organizations operating in Japan, as well as various company positions (i.e., management, staff, contact workers, etc.).

Survey questions focused on work lives, work satisfaction, aspiration for management positions, self-esteem and the meaning of work at different life stages (i.e., marriage, childbearing and child raising, etc.), as well as working environment and diversity in the workplace. Some of the key findings were:

  • 44% of overall respondents believe that diversity leads to enhanced business performance and they are willing to practice it.
  • This type of employee (labeled as “positive with active participation in diversity”) tends to have greater motivation towards their work, as well as enthusiasm and loyalty to their companies — whether male or female.
  • Men seem to be more able to readily imagine themselves becoming part of management in the future, whereas women who can do so are still in the minority. Some of the apparent factors involved in this challenge are clearly intuitive, such as the need for improvement of support systems such as child care, the lack of role models and lower self-esteem.

It is heartening that the evidence from these and other sources shows that Japanese men are increasingly supportive of women in the workplace. One of my favorite statistics is from a regularly-conducted study by the Cabinet’s Gender Equality Bureau. The data shows that the number of men and women who disagreed with the statement “the husband should be the breadwinner and the wife should stay at home”finally exceeded 50% for the first time in 2007.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 15th June 2009

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